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December 29, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. - Like most Gamecock fans living in Tampa, Greg Albach felt a throat-lumping surge of pride as he watched last year's garnet-and-black invasion of southern Florida.

This year, Albach wants to give something back to the fans who are once again making the trip to Tampa.

So when he heard the Gamecocks were returning to the Outback Bowl, he approached Tampa-area business owners and asked them to offer discounts to Gamecock fans.

Some business owners responded, saying they'd like to get a piece of the Gamecock spending pie.

Albach, 28, who grew up cheering for the Gamecocks in the Lowcountry town of Hanahan, has listed three restaurants and four attractions on his Web site. The restaurants are in Brandon, where Albach lives. Brandon is to Tampa what Irmo is to Columbia.

To get the discounts, fans must print out coupons and take them to the businesses. A few weeks back, Albach also sent e-mails with hotel deals to fan groups.

"I did it not to get anything out of it for myself, but just to help people out," said Albach, who sells celebrity autographs. "I know that times are tough for everybody right now. I know people aren't spending money, but Carolina fans are just amazing.

"No matter how hard times are, they still come out to support the team. It makes me proud to be a Gamecock fan."

The spending helps business owners' pocketbooks, too.

For the second straight year, USC fans have helped sell out tickets at Raymond James Stadium. The 2001 game lured more than 51,700 visitors and had an estimated $30.2 million economic impact on the Tampa Bay area, according to an Outback Bowl-released study done by the Bonn Marketing Group.

"We're thrilled to have the bowl game in our city," said Kim Hall, spokeswoman for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "The impact is really felt because of so many visitors from out of state, so for USC fans, we're like, 'Come on in.'??t;p> While in Tampa, Gamecock fans eat at local restaurants, celebrate at Ybor City pubs and stay in Tampa hotels.

The Hyatt Regency downtown, where the team stays, booked its 521 rooms for four nights within an hour of the announcement that USC would return to the Outback, said Daniel Kuperschmid, director of sales for the hotel.

"These guys are unbelievable," Kuperschmid said. "It's a group of people that are not afraid to spend money. .?? You know a Gamecock fan immediately in the lobby because they're covered in red."

Fans wear their Gamecock gear, too, at local attractions, such as Busch Gardens, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Florida Aquarium.

"They're great fans," said Dale Schmidt, the aquarium's director of operations. "They're very enthusiastic. That's what I remember of them last year."

Darlene Hill, at the Italian restaurant Bernini of Ybor, said she remembers the Gamecocks for their appetites.

"The fans seem to come in, and they like a lot of pizza. They're good people. We were excited when we heard that it was South Carolina coming back again because we had had a good experience with them last year."

USC fans living in Tampa said last year's display of Gamecock pride gave them a good name.

Albach said in addition to getting some restaurant discounts, he has won a few friends over as converts to USC fandom.

One of them is his roommate, Craig Moore, 26.

"To be honest, it amazes me," Moore said. "I'm originally from Tampa, and I see how our Buccaneer fans go around and parade and show off their spirit if the Bucs are winning. If the Bucs are not winning, they don't go to games; whereas, Carolina, even when they were on their losing streak, they kept going and supporting their team."

For Tampa transplants, the Gamecock bowl game hoopla was - and promises to be again - like therapy.

"It made you feel very happy to be an alumnus," said Mark Baldyga, a 1992 USC graduate who heads Tampa's alumni club. "When you live in Florida, you either have Florida State, Florida or Miami. We South Carolina folks, we kind of huddle together."

By APRIL SIMUN, Copyright © 2001 The State-Record Company


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